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Did Angel Olsen Just Show the Music Industry How to Make Vinyl Green?

Her new album, 'Big Time,' includes a surcharge for carbon offsets at just $1 per vinyl album and 50 cents per CD.

Could there be a simpler way for the music industry to go green? While acts like Coldplay and Justin Bieber have been focused on bicycle-powered stadium shows and kinetic dancefloors, for her new album Big Time (out Friday on Jagjaguwar) Angel Olsen took a more straightforward approach that’s replicable for artists of all sizes. Each vinyl or CD copy of the album purchased from her label’s website has carbon offsets built into the pricing, meaning the environmental impact that went into producing — and will go into consuming — the vinyl album (for $1 each) or CD (50 cents each) is effectively neutralized.

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All the proceeds from these surcharges go to Native, a public benefit corporation specializing in carbon offsets, which will use the money to purchase carbon offsets supporting the Medford Spring Grassland Project to help acquire and conserve 6,900 acres of grassland in Bent County, Colorado.

“After the pandemic I had a big change in values and really started to notice and pay attention to nature and what it does for us,” says Olsen by email. “As I move forward with producing vinyl I wanted to do something that would erase or at the very least reduce the carbon footprint of my work.”

The carbon offset project for Big Time comes amid a recent surge of sustainability initiatives by artists and their camps, though this is most often seen in the touring arena by high-profile, resource-rich acts that also include Billie Eilish and The 1975. But for smaller artists, “greening” an entire touring operation simply isn’t practical. Making an album release more sustainable, on the other hand, is a more cost-effective solution that requires less of a heavy lift. “Sometimes the answer is, there’s nothing you can do. This is a hard reality of a promo trip, or flying across the world to do something that [is] part of the campaign,” says Olsen’s longtime manager, Christian Stavros at Other Operation. “But the areas that you can make an effort sometimes doesn’t cost as much as you think it will.”

Though there has been less attention paid to album releases in terms of sustainability, they have a sizable impact on the environment, producing carbon dioxide emissions through both streaming activity and the production of physical product. Spotify’s 2020 sustainability report stated that the servers which allow listeners to stream music on the platform produce over 70,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, while vinyl records — now the most popular physical music format — are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a plastic polymer that comes from crude oil; most vinyl pressing machines also require fossil fuels to operate.

The idea for the offsetting project came directly from Olsen herself. Big Time — which was written and produced during a transformative time in the singer’s life, including her coming-out process and the deaths of both of her parents — was informed in part by her hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains near her home in Asheville, North Carolina, as well as the natural landscape of Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon where the album was recorded. To lean into the nature theme, Olsen began looking for a way to, as Stavros says, “add real value to a product without having to produce another product.”

In other words, instead of enticing fans to pre-order the album by tacking on an extra incentive in the form of an additional physical item, “Angel and I were like, ‘What if we explore the idea of just adding money to the [album] as an option, and then that money goes towards carbon offsetting? Will people choose that?” says Stavros, who says they also explored alternative ways to make the physical album release more sustainable, including by producing vinyl from recycled “ocean plastic” (which turned out to be cost-prohibitive).

After she and Stavros approached Jagjaguwar with the idea, the label contacted Terra Lumina Consulting, which had been working with Secretly Group and its family of labels since last year to lighten the company’s carbon footprint – from looking at solar energy options at Secretly offices to crafting sustainable travel policies and practices for employees.

When conceiving the Big Time carbon offset project, Terra Lumina was asked to calculate what the additional charge would be for both a “carbon neutral” and a “carbon negative” model – the latter term meaning that a project removes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits.

Terra Lumina then went to work calculating costs involved in neutralizing the emissions produced by the life cycle of a physical album on both vinyl and CD by considering four categories: manufacturing, which accounts for the carbon emitted while producing the product and its packaging, including the mining of raw materials; delivery, or the carbon emitted by transporting the product from point of production to end consumer; consumption, which accounts for the electricity consumed by home stereos used to play the album; and finally the carbon emitted by end of life disposal measures, including recycling methods which themselves consume energy and resources.

Jennifer Cregar, founder and principal at Terra Lumina, concedes that the process of calculating carbon offsets is an inexact science “laden with assumptions,” including around the number of plays a physical album might get over its lifespan (they finally arrived at the “very round figure” of 100 hours as an average, she says).

Once these calculations were complete, Olsen and her team opted for the “carbon negative” option, which in the case of Big Time amounted to doubling the number of carbon offsets per item that it would take to be carbon neutral – partially to account for the album’s writing/recording/mastering process, which was not included in the carbon offset calculations, as well as emissions created by fans who opt to stream the album. This resulted in a slightly higher, but still minimal, additional charge for consumers (the amounts were ultimately determined by the label). Because all carbon calculations for shipping were based around shipments from Secretly Store warehouses, pre-orders are only available through Secretly as opposed to Angel’s artist webstore or third-party retailers.

Now that his work on the Big Time carbon offset project is complete, Stavros is looking to not only reduce the carbon footprint for Olsen’s merch and touring operations but those of Other Operations’ remaining roster, which includes Devendra Banhart, Muna and Of Monsters and Men. While he admits there are limitations to what can be accomplished amid the realities of the modern music business – particularly for independent artists – sometimes, he says, practical sustainability solutions can reveal themselves with just a little extra research: “It’s just a matter of putting in the time and the effort to looking into it.”